The rap on snapper caps
It is popular for many reasons. It is relatively easy to catch. Adults can weigh from 2 pounds to 50 pounds, and they have a nice rosy red color.
Red snapper is famously easy to cook and eat, as its flesh provides an excellent taste.
For years it was the favorite fish for Winter Texans because they could be caught around oil rigs in shallower state waters, which does not require a trip longer than eight to 12 hours on a party boat and therefore not as costly as a trip, for example, to catch marlin or tuna that are found many miles out in the federal waters of the Gulf.
The red snapper's popularity with both skilled and amateur fishermen over the years has caused a virtual shutdown of the local wintertime party boat and charter boat business because the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council has for more than a decade been targeting an evershortening season for red snapper fishing in federal and state waters.
Area party and charter boat operators contend that a newly implemented two-month red snapper fishing season in federal and now state waters will adversely affect the hospitality and tourism industry in Port Aransas.
"When I purchased this business in 1996 the red snapper season was open year round. It was in 1998 or 1999 when the snapper season began to be closed for two months, then for four months and then six months," said Capt. Kelly Owens, owner of Deep Sea Headquarters in Port Aransas.
Based on recommendations by the Gulf Council, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service in 2007 cut the bag limit for red snapper recreational fishing to two fish at a minimum length of 16 inches, and capped the fishing season in federal waters to a period from April 21 to Oct. 31.
The bag limit in 2006 had been four fish and a minimum length of 16 inches, with a prohibition of fish for the captain and crew of a head boat or a charter boat.
In 2008 the federal fishing season, at a point beyond 9.2 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, was trimmed to June 1 to Aug. 5.
In the meantime, Texas Parks and Wildlife had maintained a four-fish bag limit and unlimited fishing 365 days a year in state waters.
Larry McKinney, director of the Texas Coastal Fisheries Division at TPW, told the department's commission that juvenile red snapper in the Texas fishery have been steadily increasing. He also said TPW biologists do not have "a great deal of confidence in National Marine Fisheries Service population and modeling data for the species.
So the TPW commission tabled a proposal to match the federal regulations in January 2008.
That meant that oil rigs and other reef-like locales in the state sector of the Gulf of Mexico that provided shelter for red snapper could be fished by Winter Texans and other anglers who have an interest in catching the species.
The head boats and charter operations could at least make red snapper runs in state waters.
However, the National Marine Fisheries Service established a rule in early December 2008 to "require operators of federally-permitted Gulf of Mexico commercial and for-hire reef fish vessels to comply with the more restrictive of federal or state reef fish regulations when fishing in state waters for red snapper, greater amberjack, gray triggerfish, and gag."
The measures implemented through the fisheries service "temporary rule" will expire at 12:01 a.m. on June 1, unless extended on an interim basis for one additional 186-day period or replaced by measures implemented through another rule.
That ambiguity concerning the extended 186-day rule has some local boat captains thinking the feds are going to shut down the red snapper season for the entire year, since there is no stated closing of the season.
"Anybody who is in business, it has destroyed their business. This was a good winter fishery for red snapper. With a stroke of the pen they took that away," Owens said.
"The red snapper is a fish that anybody can catch no matter what their abilities are. The majority who like to fish for them are retired people, who even with arthritis can enjoy a day of catching red snapper," Owens said.
Owens, who has fished the Port Aransas area for red snapper since the 1970s, said.
"I snapper fished as a kid, and there's more snapper here now. There are places that have had no snapper that are covered with snapper. There's more snapper out there than I've ever seen in my life," Owens said.
The owner of Deep Sea Headquarters said Texas Parks and Wildlife has done an excellent job monitoring and regulating the state's fishery, but he said the National Marine Fisheries scientists' recommendations have caused a 40 percent reduction in party boat and charter fishing income.
TPW officials could not be reached for comment. Also, the NOAA fisheries southeast region did not respond to questions. A spokeswoman for the Gulf Council also did not return telephone calls regarding her organization's recommendations that have virtually shut down the red snapper season in Texas waters.
Instead, a fact sheet for the Gulf Council argues that the "red snapper stock has been overfished and undergoing overfishing since the late 1980s. The most recent red snapper stock assessment indicates continued overfishing is compromising the objectives of the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council's red snapper rebuilding plan."
The current rebuilding plan requires fishery managers to end overfishing of red snapper between 2009 and 2010, and rebuild the population to sustainable levels by 2032.
Capt. Keith Schoolcraft, who operates the head boat Gulf Eagle out of Deep Sea Headquarters, said that he is still running long range fishing trips into the Gulf for kingfish, cobia, sharks, mahi mahi, wahoo, tuna and other species and he has yet to schedule any trips in state waters.
But the confinement of the season to a couple of months in the summer, even in state waters, will affect his business.
And he disagrees with the Gulf Council's contention that red snapper in the Texas sector of the Gulf have been overfished.
"There's more red snapper now than I've ever seen if you go to the right places," Schoolcraft said.
Red snapper are fished from a depth of 50 to 75 feet in state waters, and even deeper, 200 to 300 feet, in federal waters.
They are being caught, and because of the closed season, red snapper have to be thrown back.
One problem is that they are often bloated from being pulled from such depths, and a federal requirement that the fish be vented before released is not getting them all safely back to their reefs.
"Even if you vent them you will lose a lot of them. Dolphins, wahoo and kingfish get some of them on the way back down. They're stressed and in shock when you release them, and a lot of them die," Schoolcraft said.
Nate Forbes, captain of the Iced Down, a 38-foot Bertram that is slipped at Deep Sea Headquarters, agrees that the red snapper is one of the favorite fish for Winter Texans, and that he has lost business because of the federal regulations.
"They're really putting a hurt on us. This will trickle down to the hotel and cottage business. People used to come in on Friday night, stay in a hotel, fish with me and shop in Port Aransas. A lot of the guys come with their wives who shop in Port Aransas," Forbes said.
"The problem is they have the whole Gulf of Mexico grouped as one fishery. On the East Coast they don't have the numbers they used to have. Here in Texas, there are more shipwrecks, oil rigs and other bottom structures. We have the perfect area for red snapper, and we're being unfairly judged," he said.
Forbes said a fair solution would be to divide the Gulf into perhaps three sectors, with one sector alone covering the Texas cost.
Many other charter operators agree that there are plenty of red snapper, and that a prohibition on fishing for them in federal and state waters is bad for business.
Capt. Marvin Horner has run head boats for 33 years in Port Aransas, and he currently runs the New Pelican out of Deep Sea Headquarters.
He said he would take out 30 people once a week to fish for red snapper if the season was open.
"Winter Texans definitely want red snapper, but boats with federal permits can't fish the state waters. The party boats suffer the most. I have one customer right now who is very disappointed that he can't go snapper fishing," Horner said.
"I think the season should be all year long, and the limit set to the first four you catch of any size, at least in the wintertime. To shut down the season completely, I don't think that's right," he said. "We are losing the Winter Texan business because of the season closure. There is enough snapper out there to fish."